The Loudest Hug

by Erwin Cabucos

MICHAEL SCRUNCHES THE wrapper of his sandwich and swallows his food with a grimace, tasting only the bitterness of guilt. He’s sickened to think that he will be harbouring a potential killer in his peaceful, close-knit Sydney suburb. ‘A peninsula, Sir. That’s Woolwich, a great Aussie ‘burb,’ said one of his students at the local school where he teaches English. 

Michael fidgets with his glasses and breathes hard, puzzled at how he ended up approving a bearded, shalwar kameez-and taqiyah-wearing, young man to stay with him in his apartment. When he accepted the guest’s online request a few weeks ago, he was quite complacent about it. Being a teacher, he felt he should model an inclusive attitude to the community. But looking at the normality of his neighbourhood now on a Saturday afternoon when ladies walk their dogs, fathers and sons bowl and bat and grandparents stroll with their grandchildren, he becomes aware of the horror that may soon strike his locality – all because of him. He can almost see the headline: Landlord’s greed costs 25 lives.

He’d listed his spare bedroom seeking friendship as much as a little extra cash; a convenient antidote to the loneliness of his life following a hostile separation from his partner. He’s been doing it for months now, and he smiles at the thought that in future when he travels, he can stay with ‘friends’ in other parts of the world. In exchange for shared meals and good conversation, he’s had countless offers of free accommodation from his previous guests. There’s Steve from Dublin, Sarah from Lyon, Ineka from Tokyo and Jason from Wagga Wagga – which is only in New South Wales, but a foreign place for him all the same. All these valuable contacts from his eighty-dollar-a-night spare bedroom he advertises online.

He leans his elbows on the lush grass and pans his eyes over the people in the park to his watch, feeling a thumping dread in his chest. ‘Bloody hell, an hour left before Mohammad checks in,’ he mumbles aloud as he lifts himself up and slaps his backside to remove grass from his pants. I guess I can still cancel his booking …

He walks to his car, looking down, trying to confront the questions in his mind. What if he makes bombs in his room while I relax in front of the TV in the lounge room? What if he plants them at the wharf? 

He imagines people flailing in the water as they bleed and die. What will I say during the police investigation, that all I wanted was an extra bit of cash for the little room I don’t use? How lame – a completely selfish excuse. 

Michael imagines the look on his neighbours’ faces as the guest comes out of his apartment in those ridiculous robes or baggy pants and long-tailed shirt – ‘the kind of shit all them Islamic people wear. ‘What is that Muslim doing in our street?’ And then there’s Aaron, his mate, who he will have difficulty facing after the rants they shared against Muslims, halal and all. ‘We don’t need them in this country. They should all go back; they should all be killed before they kill us!’

He slips the car into first and eases away from the kerb, taking comfort from the orange ripples of the harbour, reflecting the setting sun, the gulls in flight like kites on display, and the yachts dancing to the whistles of the wind. 

As he snakes along Woolwich Road towards Hunter’s Hill, the expanse of grass and the Harbour Bridge diminish in his mirror. He smiles at the irony of it all – he is going towards that from which he wants to escape. He shakes his head at the complexity of human decision-making and situations. This is one of those moments where he can easily blame his grandfather overseas for bequeathing a part of the family’s inheritance to him during his twenty-first birthday a few years ago, but that’s beside the point now. 

Jacaranda trees and stone walls fence in the colonial homes that line the streets. He reflects on how lucky he is to have been born in one of the world’s wealthy nations, to live in a world-class city, to be the envy of many around the world. Maybe this visitor wants nothing more than a beautiful place to stay – and is not really a terrorist. He’s probably not that bad. I’ll see what he’s like. 

It’s not too late. I can refuse and give a full refund. And if questions are asked, he can say, ‘I’m just not comfortable with you’, which he knows is a subtle way of saying, ‘I don’t want you because you’re a Muslim and you’re scary’. On the other side of the coin, he feels his fear is unfounded and will just vanish once he meets him. Maybe I am being over the top. I should stay calm. He remembers his year 8 student told him once: ‘Hakuna Matata, Sir. No Worries’. Somehow, he’s convinced that his worry is warranted given the world’s situation today. He recalls news stories of Muslim terrorists showing no remorse, claiming responsibility for the awful atrocities, during 9/11, then later in nightclubs, streets and at concert venues. 

He flings open the door of his spare room and nods to the white sheets tightly covering the queen mattress, congratulating himself on being able to tuck in the corners as well as those in the rooms of five-star hotels. He straightens the USB telephone chargers on either side of the bed, recalling his previous guests’ reviews on the thoughtfulness of providing such modern amenities. He walks to the lounge room, slumps on the couch and stretches his arms as he starts to doze off, feeling tired from the conflicting thoughts in his mind. Then, these pop up: Would a cup of tea be appropriate for Muslim visitors? Does it have to be halal? Are there traces of pork in my tea bags? 

The buzzer sounds like a maxed-up defibrillator. A black moustache and beard fill his security camera. Oh god, he’s here. ‘Come in.’ There’s a tremor in his voice. His hands tremble as he presses the security button. 

‘Thank you,’ the bearded mouth replies in a baritone.

‘Second floor. Unit 4.’

‘Yep, thank you.’ 

The decisiveness adds to his anxiety. As if he already knows the unit – a true attribute of a criminal: knowledgeable and cunning. He slaps his head. Shut up, Michael. Stop being stupid.  You’ve hyped yourself up for nothing. Everything will be fine. Will it?

The three knocks at the door are like thunder, loud enough to wake a corpse in a graveyard. He walks to the door and frowns when he sees Mario Moretti, the property manager, sporting a new moustache and beard. Behind him is a clean-shaven, short-haired guy in his twenties. Long skinny chino pants stand on heron-like legs supporting a lanky body in a tight black t-shirt. 

‘Michael, I found Mohammad wandering around the complex looking for you.’ 

‘Didn’t think it was you, Mario. You look different!’

‘Trendy isn’t it!’ Moretti smiles and strokes his beard with his fingers.

‘Looks great, mate. Awesome!’ Michael manages to relax a little. ‘Thanks for helping him. I can take it from here.’

‘No worries, Mike.’ Mario turns to go. ‘Alright then, Mohammad. I’ll leave you with Michael. He doesn’t bite.’

‘Thank you,’ says Mohammad with a serious look.

‘He has three suitcases downstairs.’ Mario’s voice reverberates in the hallway, his steps thumping down the stairs. ‘Ciao!’ 

‘Let’s get your luggage.’ Michael smiles at his guest, noticing brown, wide eyes in a face looking meek yet tired.  He waits for an easy response like a ‘thank you or a smile, at least, but nothing comes out.

Mohammad simply stares at Michael. 

This is so awkward. Are you going to talk at all? Maybe terrorists are weird in personality. Michael starts to go down and hopes Mohammad will follow.

Mohammad clears his throat; his feet glued to the floor.

‘Did you have a good trip?’ Michael tries to break the silence, wanting to put Mohammad at ease. Maybe he’s shy – anxious after landing in a new place. 

The guest is still frozen, standing like a mannequin in a men’s fashion store. 

‘Let’s go!’ Michael beckons from halfway down the stairs. He notices how different Mohammad is from the profile he’d seen. 

The clean-shaven man looking at him would be described by Michael’s gay friends as hot and exotic. The toned build, brown skin with tall nose and defined jawbones excite the keen observers of men’s physique. Certainly, not a terrorist look, not this one. Or perhaps, it’s just the look. No one should be deceived by appearance, as many things are not what they seem.

‘M-michael.’ Mohammad struggles to speak. 

‘Yeah, mate.’

Mohammad takes a couple of reluctant steps to reach for Michael and wraps his arms around him. ‘Thank you.’

Michael’s eyes widen. His face contorts to the awkwardness he feels. Definitely strange. I never thought BnB hosting could take me to unfamiliar situations like this. ‘What for?’ 

‘For accepting my booking.’

‘A handshake is just fine, mate, and don’t worry about it. That’s what we do.’ 

Mohammad removes his hands and taps Michael’s shoulders. ‘Really, thanks.’

‘All good.’ Michael notices Mohammad’s eyes well up. ‘Are you okay?’

‘You know what, I spent all night trying to book, but no one accepted it.’ He swallows hard; his voice weakens. ‘Only after I spoke to my business friends did I realise that I didn’t have the right look, that, with my kameez, prayer cap and all, I’d be scaring people off. So I shaved, removed my shalwar kameez, and changed into a shirt and jeans. I wasn’t going to do it, something I don’t do very often, but I did it to be less complicated for others.’ 

‘Really?’ Michael’s lips part as realisation dawns that he has just made a fool of himself.

Mohammad lets out a huge breath. ‘And when I was about to upload a new profile pic, you’d already said yes. So, thank you.’

‘All good, mate.’ Michael pats Mohammad on the arm. ‘Don’t worry about it.’

‘I’m not a terrorist,’ he says, pressing one palm to his heart. ‘I’m just an ordinary Muslim who wants to enjoy Sydney.’ He gives a slow smile. ‘I think you are one of a kind, Michael.’

‘I know, mate. I know you’re not one of them. But I’m not one of a kind. I’m just one of them.’ Michael blinks, realising the perception in which he has drowned himself – doubting the guest he had approved in the first place. Each step they make seems to create a jab in his pride. He is not normally this low. Now he is touched with a sudden urge to lift two of three bags. He cringes to the weight that the luggage puts pressure on his joints; he can almost hear them crack, but he dismisses all that. He thinks the struggle is a way to recompense the good he has erred. On the way up, they stop halfway, puffing. 

‘They’re heavy for you.’ Mohammad huffs. ‘Let me carry the other one.’

‘Bloody hell.’ Michael shakes his head, short of breath. ‘What’s inside? It feels like you’ve got all the rocks and desert sand from Pakistan in these.’

‘Things. Sulphur, bits of concrete, nails…’  

‘What?’

‘Just kidding.’ Mohammad smiles. ‘They’re sample products of cricket accessories that we manufacture. I’ll hand them out to my potential distributors around Sydney in the next few days.’

‘Mate, don’t joke about things like that, alright? People take them seriously here.’

‘I’m serious.’

‘What?’

‘I’m serious that they’re cricket balls, caps, clads, sunglasses…’

Michael laughs. ‘You’re a cheeky little Arab, aren’t ya?’ Oops, that was a stupid thing to say.

‘Do you realise how many security checks I had to go through?’

‘You wouldn’t call yourself Arab, would you?’

Mohammad shakes his head. ‘I’m from Pakistan, not Saudi Arabia. I’m Islamic, not Arabic, even though I can speak Arabic.’ 

‘Of course!’ Let’s keep going, eh?’ 

‘Yep.’

‘So, you’re here for business?’

‘Partly, but also to enjoy, to see what this place is like, to meet Aussies like you. This is better than staying in a hotel where you only get to meet the four corners of your room.’

‘Fair enough. But I’m not really an Aussie as such. I was born in the UK and moved here when I was in primary. You’ve come to the right spot, though.’ 

‘You look Aussie, you sound Aussie. So, you are.’

‘I guess you can say that.’

They reach the unit, catching their breaths. Michael opens the door. ‘Welcome to my place,’ he says. 

‘Wonderful view.’ Mohammad places his hand on his waist.

‘Feel at home, mate.’ Michael opens the window and feels the wind kiss his forehead. He brushes his hair as he breathes in the same breeze that sweeps across the tiles of the Opera House and the rivets of the Harbour Bridge. He imagines his doubts and perception form like a mist that fizzles in the air. For a minute, he sees Atticus Finch’s words flash across the Sydney sky, ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’ 

‘Thank you.’ Mohammad nods. ‘A nice breeze.’

‘You can leave your shoes there.’ Michael points to the shoe rack near the door. 

‘Thank you.’ Mohammad takes off his shoes.

 ‘Cup of tea?’ Michael says, raising his brow.

(Published in 4W Journal, Australia 2018, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, 2019)